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I shoot film. A compendium of photographic films and resources for the modern photographer.


The Best Film Camera Kit You Can Buy for Under $200

Posted October 18, 2014 by Aaron Brethorst

Updates:

  • December 19, 2014 - Revised lens choice from the 50mm Æ’/1.8 to the Æ’/1.4 SSC; updated latest pricing on bargain A-1 cameras.

I saw a great article over on Japan Camera Hunter the other day about the best film cameras you can buy for under $79. I love the level of detail and care that Bellamy put into his guide, but I thought it would be fun to take it one step further: a complete camera kit with a body, lens, a roll of black and white and color film, and film developing for $200 or less.

Maybe you've been shooting digital for a while, and want to make a jump into film, or perhaps you're looking for an awesome Christmas present for the avid photographer in your life. I know that I would've been delighted a couple years back to receive a film camera with everything I needed to start shooting immediately.

What's Needed

In order to get started with film photography, you'll need a handful of pieces of gear: a camera body, a lens, possibly a battery, and a roll of film. I'll talk about each in turn, and give you some thoughts on what you may want to consider buying.

Film

Film is a very personal choice, and there's really no right answer about which type of film to use. If you already have an opinion on film, feel free to ignore everything I write about it. The suggestions in the guide below are meant for people who're interested in dipping a toe into the film world, but don't know where to start.

Kodak Tri-X 400

Kodak Tri-X 400 was the film of choice for photojournalists for decades. It's a relatively fast, very forgiving black and white film with beautiful grain. It has a wide exposure latitude, meaning that you can easily underexpose it by two stops or overexpose by a stop, and still get fantastic photos from it. Normally, I like to overexpose it by a stop (i.e. shoot it at ISO 200), as I did in the photo below. You can see plenty of other examples of what Tri-X 400 can look like at the page for it here on this site.

Inner World

Inner World by Aaron Brethorst. Kodak Tri-X 400. All rights reserved, used with permission.

Kodak Ektar 100

Kodak Ektar 100 is a very fine grained, medium speed color film. Because it uses the C-41 process for developing, you can take it to just about any photo lab—or even the drugstore—for development. That said, I strongly recommend against ever using a drugstore photo lab, or anything similar. The risk of damage to your negatives is too high.

Although it's not a slide film, Ektar produces really spectacular image detail, and gloriously saturated colors.

Sunset

Sunset by David Whitehall. Kodak Ektar 100. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Lenses

I almost always walk around with a 50mm prime lens attached to my camera. On a 35mm camera, 50mm lenses are referred to as "normal" lenses, which means that they show you a scene that is roughly the same as what a human eye will see on its own. The black and white photo of mine above was made with a 50mm lens.

Prime lenses are lenses that can't zoom in and out. This may sound like a disadvantage, but it's actually a fantastic thing for five reasons:

  1. Prime lenses are fast. A fast lens is one that can take in a lot of light, which means that the camera shutter can be open for a shorter period of time. The net result of this is that a photographer using a fast lens can get crisp, non-blurry photos even in relatively low light conditions. You can determine how fast a lens is by the widest aperture it offers. On most 50mm lenses, this will be a value like Æ’/1.8, Æ’/1.4, or even Æ’/1.2. Smaller aperture numbers (i.e. Æ’/1.4) are faster than larger numbers (i.e. Æ’/1.8).
  2. Prime lenses are lighter than zoom lenses. Since the manufacturer only needs to support a single fixed focal length, they can jettison many of the parts inside the lens (like some of the glass elements). Less glass means less weight, and a lighter lens is always more enjoyable to use than a heavier one.
  3. Prime lenses are cheaper than zoom lenses, much for the same reason that they're lighter. Less stuff in them means a lower basic materials cost, which means they're cheaper to build.
  4. Prime lenses produce better image quality than zoom lenses. Simpler lens construction makes it easier for the lens manufacturer to design a higher quality product. You'll notice that your photos will be sharper, and finer details in the photos will pop instead of being blurry smudges.
  5. Prime lenses force photographers to be less lazy. Since a photographer equipped with a prime lens can't zoom in or out with their lens, they're forced to reposition themselves to get the composition they want. To be honest, this is the least quantitative and most qualitative advantage I can speak to for a prime lens, but one of the best things I ever did for my photography was to shoot almost exclusively with primes.

The Camera Body

Canon A1

Photograph by Benjamin Nagel. CC BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons

There are lots of fantastic, high quality, older film camera bodies out there that can be had for $100 or less. I'll admit that I'm something of a snob, and my two primary film cameras cost a wee bit more than $100, but if you're just getting started in film photography, I'd strongly recommend against spending the money on a Leica or a Hasselblad until you know you're ready to really commit to the medium. Instead, I'd recommend that you purchase what is arguably the first 'modern' SLR camera.

The Canon A-1 was manufactured from 1978 to 1985, and is notable for being the first SLR camera to feature what's known as an electronically-controlled program mode, where the camera selects both the aperture and shutter speed for you based upon the circumstances. Even better, the A-1 was (and is) compatible with the huge number of lenses Canon produced with the FD mount. Canon discontinued the FD lens mount in 1992, but you can still find a ton of lenses compatible with this camera for—relatively speaking—almost nothing.

The Kit

If you decide to go with the A-1, here's what I'd recommend buying:

Which comes to a grand total of $162.83 before tax and shipping. If you want to cut back to save a little money, I'd recommend ditching the color film, which will save you $16.69 including developing fees.

I hope you found this useful! If you're interested in hearing about other camera types, like rangefinders or medium format systems, or want to hear about cameras at higher pricepoints...like some rangefinders and medium format systems, please let me know!


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